I approached Bulbbul expecting to like it, or at least not disliking it, and as the first few scenes unfolded I vehemently fought to appreciate the film, yet as the credits rolled in the end, I could find myself feeling deeply disappointed and it took me a while to be able to fully understand the ways in which the film failed its audience.
Plenty has been said about the references the film makes, its cinematography and production design and it’s wonderful actors, and I’m not disputing any of these things. My contention remains with the content of the film and the claims it, or others, have made that it might be “feminist” or cover several “gender issues”. I want to unpack what each of these terms mean and what it means for a film to qualify as feminist or progressive.
The film is crafted around two scenes of incredible violence: the brutal beating of Bulbbul by her husband and the rape that follows by her brother-in-law.
What is most unsettling about the film is just how short it falls of actually saying something and how, in the process, it exploits the very things it claims to want to address. By situating the film in a space of a deeply patriarchal and oppressive society but refusing to explore/discuss the myriad ways in which gendered oppression plays out, the film, structuring itself around two acts of explicit violence only serves to aestheticise them and reduces them to plot points leaving the audience shook from the violence, yes, but cheated of any real interrogation or analysis.
The film pays a cursory nod to the entrenched gender roles by situating it within the context of a child bride in the thakur gharana of a village where women are routinely oppressed without providing any actual commentary on this context.
For me, the failings of this film raise the question of what we want from films. Depictions of gendered violence, simply acknowledging it exists, don’t make a film progressive. Exploiting existing oppressive structures, without questioning or critiquing them is not progressive nor is aestheticising acts of violence and delivering them to the society in which it exists.
When we showcase acts of social violence, and when we attempt to craft this depiction in ways that consciously illicit a visceral response, we must ask ourselves to what end? The commentary that arises from this and the visibilization it provides is what, one can argue, makes it worthwhile to put an entire people through the traumatising process of watching on screen what they witness/fear witnessing in their everyday life. Without the commentary, all one is doing is asking individuals already socialised into fearing this violence, individuals already oppressed, to relive a trauma that may be part of their lived realities and allowing those that occupy positions of the oppressor to relieve themselves of guilt by allowing them to condemn only the most explicitly violent forms of oppression.
In this light, it is important to ask ourselves what the goal of showcasing a particular form of violence is. If all the film wishes to do is “shock” its audience, it’s perhaps worthwhile to discuss whether that’s a worthy goal. This film (like so many others that showcase brutal rape and other forms of assault) cheats/exploits us by giving us nothing but this visceral fear when it chooses to use assault as merely an aestheticised plot device devoid of any commentary.
That being said, I’d argue that the film fails on multiple other counts, because take away this central act of violence and nothing remains of the story (nothing remains even with it in). The film tells us nothing.
There’s the terrible representation of mental illness (I’m not sure what pagal is supposed to translate as, and I’m not sure why this makes them a sexual offender), the shocking lack of commentary on the child marriage that seems very much part of the plot but only gets commented on once the child-bride has grown up and gets assaulted by her husband for falling in love with his younger brother and then raped by the husband’s “pagal” older brother, the unnecessary and problematic deification of the woman (aurat devi, kali maa et all, because of course we either have the bad woman we don’t really care about or the goddess), to name a few.
I’m not entirely sure if the film thinks child marriage is bad, since there seems to be no discussion of it, or rape is bad, one can only assume that the child was incapable of consent, or rape of an adult woman is bad because one can’t be sure what relationship Bulbbul had with her much older husband because the film neither pauses on these nor comments on them. The film’s focus is clear, its building to what it considers is the awful vile act in need of reproach.
If one doesn’t already believe or know this, by the end of the film one leaves with the idea that this particularly brutal form of violence is bad and unacceptable, but that is all. In the crescendo-like effect the film hoped to achieve with these central scenes, it failed to critique the forms of violence inherent in the context it has set. I don’t know what I’m supposed to take away from the film.
Bulbbul is possibly an attempt to do more with the horror genre, but a severe lack of understanding in what that is and how to go about it means that it fails miserably. The film could have been more: it could’ve been an exploration of forms of gendered violence in a particular era and the resonances that remain, it could’ve been a commentary on mythology and superstition that seeks to reinforce dangerous gender roles and punish those that would attempt to defy it, but what it remains, unfortunately, is a story that exploits fears by centring its narrative around an act of horrific violence and leaving it at that.
The deeply disappointing nature of the film reminds us of the need to ground a concern about society in an actual critical understanding of society. The film sets itself in a promising context, yes, but falls terribly short of being promising itself.
It is upsetting that films and filmmakers get away with simply the acknowledgement of discrimination (gendered or otherwise) or the depiction of violence (gendered or otherwise) to qualify as being socially conscious or progressive. Rape revenge dramas and using sexual assault as a plot devices is exhausting at best and exploitative at worst if it fails to do anything beyond that. We need to do better.